UAW wins major victory in unionizing Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga

2012 Volkswagen Passats sit in the Assembly Building, at the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., on Wednesday, June 1, 2011. The plant which has an initial capacity of 125,000 units per year, will build the 2012 Volkswagen Passat for the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Photographer: Mark Elias/Bloomberg

Lines of 2012 Volkswagen Passats sit in the Assembly Building at the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photo by Mark Elias/Bloomberg

On Monday, Volkswagen certified the Union of Automobile Workers (UAW) as the sole representative of members of Local 42, a branch of UAW representing factory workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The decision came after an independent audit tallied over 50 percent of workers in Volkswagen’s Chattanooga factory with membership in Local 42.

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According to Volkswagen’s Community Organization Engagement policy, released in November, a union that can demonstrate it represents at least 45 percent of its constituency’s workers is allowed to hold bi-weekly meetings with Volkswagen management.

Prior to the announcement, Volkswagen’s Chattanooga location was the only one of its factories not recognized in the Global Group Works Council, an organization representing the company’s workers around the world.

During a press conference today, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel expressed his enthusiasm for a cooperative relationship between the union and Volkswagen as the company expands its operations in the Southern United States, where labor is less unionized.

“Today is for us a very important day,” said Casteel. “We’ve been working for several years with Volkswagen to understand how expansion can happen in a way that benefits both the workers and the company.”

Casteel said the initial meetings between UAW and Volkswagen executives will host discussions that he hopes will lead to collective bargaining with Volkswagen executives. The UAW will also propose the idea of a works council similar to the arrangement Volkswagen has with workers in Germany. Casteel acknowledges, however, that it is too early to tell how soon UAW will achieve these objectives.

“Our commitment was that we would negotiate the first American works council. But that’s not today’s task,” he said. “You have to walk before you run, crawl before you walk.”

In February, PBS NewsHour covered the political backlash in Chattanooga during a vote to unionize Volkswagen factory workers with UAW. Republican Senator Bob Corker and a group called the National Right to Work expressed concern that the unionization would hurt Volkswagen’s activities and jeopardize job creation in the area. The vote ultimately failed.

Since then, Casteel sees Volkswagen’s recent announcement as a milestone in progress. Although there is still much to do, he felt that Volkswagen’s announcement was not expected given the union’s position in February.